Red celebrates return to consciousness by throttling doctor stooped over bed, whose pince-nez slips off to explode on white tile. For man shot in head and forced to land in Belgium, Red seems less the worse for wear as Schweinfeder and I struggle to break his grip. “That dog!” comes husk of voice, brutal vessels blooming in face. “Dog was toying with me!” At once he swoons, resumes glass coma. Doctor sucks air, clutches autograph book to chest, one finger placeholding still-blank page. “Same sweet baboon,” Schweinfeder snorts.
Red is distant unaccountable asshole, yet it’s other people I’m expected to kill. Schweinfeder (secret Jew) is his other perpetual wingman; together we listen as Red dictates autobiography to bored propagandist. “Hawker, there was a worthy duel,” Red expounds, twisting blue hospital blanket. “But nemeses come and go.” Pantomime of kill. “New adversaries on the horizon?” doodling ghostwriter asks. “That cheeky beagle who took me down,” Red mutters. Would make the man see psychiatrist, were there one in the world worth five cents.
He wants to fly; Luftstreitkräfte stalls. Germany’s morale can’t sustain loss of ace, not with sixty confirmed kills and twice as many myths to his name. Too late: under gauze-wrapped skull, all’s gone awry. Nurses, one brawny, one bespectacled, latter addressing former as Herr, summon me and Schweinfeder when Red disappears. Discover him in hangar: drunk on morphine, drooling over moonlit triplane, filling with siphoned fuel. Mutters as we drag him back that we sound like muted brass played by fumbling amateurs. “Want to shut him up?” Schweinfeder whispers. “I got a rock.” Valkyries track us in smoked October nights, eager to whisk Red to Valhalla. Propeller thrums in clotted black above. We tramp across the great pumpkin patch, sparing few.
Grounding pilots insufficient: we come untethered, float off regardless. Schweinfeder stops bathing — nearly visible aura of dirt hangs about him. Red puts mailbox at foot of bed, is daily crestfallen to find it empty. I stuff with undeliverable mail, courtesy of postmaster friend. “Must be millions of people all over the world who never get any love letters,” Red muses over ransacked pile. “I could be their leader.” “Blockhead,” Schweinfeder scoffs, “you are a leader.” Red’s epiphany hits so hard that for a moment I fear it’ll knock his clothes off.
Rittmeister Richthofen, captain’s hat concealing scar, trench coat lapping ankles, gives pep talk worthy of unwinning sports coach. “Air combat principles passed down by Maestro Boelcke are useless,” he snarls. “Our new scourge defies them all.” Only now do Jasta pilots realize damage done. They’d forgive his nausea during practice flights, his brief loss of bearings, but sacrilege will sink him. “The machine is painted like a Sopwith Camel, but no propeller, synchronization equipment, or indeed gun, no wings of any description. Think a tiny airborne house.” Ripplings of nervous laughter. “Funny!” Red shrieks. “The mongrel does not need sun behind him; he feints and dives with total cool. Hunts alone, a rogue, a madman. English skill, American hubris.” His eyes linger on pale redhead Adonis towards back. Obsessed stare unreturned.
Schweinfeder returns from mission, with wink tells Red he was right as rain: snooping around front alone — atop house-shaped box — was calico dog, red scarf snapping in icy wind, who executed hairpin Immelmann turns, loosed swinging tongue with helium cackles. But flea-bitten fellow’s sparring days are done, Schweinfeder gloats. Trails of bullet holes punched across wood, fiend went down cursing in gray funnel with final salute. Later, in bar, our melancholy ringleader interrupts pianist. “No more Beethoven, the sentimental bastard.” So sarcastic blond plays American jazz, gets heads bobbing.
Vision of engaging the Beagle. Stacks his oddly human teeth in towers, shakes into life the invisible gun. We set the sky ablaze, weave black zigzags across golden dusk. He climbs to a stall and plummets past, black ears trilling, face blank canvas, lifts goggles to reveal all-pupil eyes. Awake in pre-dawn, remember Mannie Red is his own worst foe. A yellow bird alights on the windowsill, speaking spells. Outside, Red stares at toy plane — jammed just out of reach in skeletal tree.
Most seductive of pilot errors. Picture school chum stealing football away as you approach goalkeeper — negated target, replaced by mere idea. Thought collapses to vanishing point, razor anti-focus, smooth dissolution of ego: shading into prey. Bearing down on nemesis, in thrall to convergence, you forget to fire. He peels off, but afterimage follows phantom rails, and you, dizzy with frosted sun, pursue. Red is dead. Homed in till mutt turned ghost and solid ground rose up to meet. Suppose wishful imagination outwits always. Schweinfeder bewails attempt to slay fantasy, weeps openly, like child. “Take my handkerchief,” I say. “Good grief.”